Thursday, July 10, 2008

Iran's Missile Test, ah, Enhanced with Digital Fakery

It's a cool photo: Four missiles rising into the sky at a dramatic diagonal, demonstrating the armed might of Iran.

Just one problem: There were really only three in the air. The fourth one was a copy of one of the other missiles, combined with smoke on the ground from another.

(from The Lede/The New York Times, used w/o permission)
Wow! Impressive, isn't it?

(from The Lede/The New York Times, used w/o permission)
Oops! One's still on the ground.

The official Iranian photo was on the front page of The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, and The Chicago Tribune, before the Associated Press got a copy of the pre-enhanced photo. Newspapers weren't the only ones embarrassed: online news services like BBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo! News, and were displaying the doctored photo, too.

The Associated Press found the original photo, and distributed it: and there's a pretty good discussion - with photos - of what happened at The New York Times blog, "In an Iranian Image, a Missile Too Many"
(The Lede/The New York Times (July 10, 2008)).

I think I understand why Sepah News, Iran's Revolutionary Guard's media section, improved the look of their original photo. Showing a test-firing of four mighty missiles, where one is just sitting on the ground, just doesn't have the impact of showing a test firing where all four worked.

And, I'll have to admit that Iran's retouching was much better done than Adnan Hajj's, back in 2006. You may not remember him: He's the Reuter's freelance photographer whose sub-amateurish work on a photo showed extra smoke - and a duplicated building - in a Beirut, Lebanon, suburb.

(from BBC, used w/o permission)

Pictures Don't Lie

But people do.

Even untouched photos can tell a story that isn't true. Here's how:
  • Leave something out - Let's make up a ridiculous (and quite fictional) example
    • A photo of a woman in some third-world country
      • On one knee
      • In tears
      • Looking pleadingly at the camera
      • In the background, a pile of burning debris
    • What won't be in the caption
      • The debris is a pile of garbage with no connection to her, or her family
      • She's crying because the photographer is standing on her foot.
  • Put something in - This is speculation on my part
    • A photo of what used to be a building
      • Slabs of concrete with twisted rebar, lying at odd angles
      • Blocks of shattered masonry in disorderly piles
      • Grayish-brown dust covering everything
      • Except for the brightly-colored plastic child's toy, perched neatly on the nearest bit of masonry - clean as a whistle, and fresh as it was when it came out of the box
Really tugs at your heartstrings, doesn't it?

I haven't found any reliable discussion of what I'll call The Strange Case of the Clean Toys. My speculation that those Pathetic Reminders of War's Destruction of Innocent Victims were about as real as the space aliens I'd see on tabloid covers is just that - speculation.

An important lesson to be drawn by this week's fake photos is that reasoned skepticism is a good idea. Even when it looks like there's photographic proof.

More at:
Update (July 10, 2008)

Looks like Iran's optimistic reporting is still going strong:

"U.S. source disputes Iran missile tests"
CNN (July 10, 2008)

According to an American source, today's 'full round of tests' was more a matter of getting yesterday's dud off the ground.

As is often the case, it's a matter of who you're going to believe: "a senior U.S. military source" or the people who did such a good job of retouching yesterday's publicity still?

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.